Up the Valley: Scents and the City

February 21, 2013

Can our candidates pass the smell test? Today’s column in the Star

I’ve been hearing lately about pheromone parties, where singles gather in dimly lit rooms to select potential mates based solely upon the smell of their unlaundered T-shirts. I doubt that this is a likely way to find love, but it might be an interesting method for selecting our political leaders.

Let’s face it: This whole democratic election thing is getting really tiresome. It is increasingly an exercise in collective impotence, as winning candidates shapeshift at their swearing-in ceremonies and meaningful progress proves elusive. Whether the leaders we voted for are tragically lost, as happened locally, or tragically misguided, as happens too often nationally, it often seems that campaign contributions could be better spent on fixing problems rather than on fixing blame.

Plus, elections are really divisive, with the winners nose-tweaking the losers in a typically American way. But a competing national archetype is the resilient loser, who wastes no time in picking up, dusting off, and renewing the good fight even before the helium has evaporated in the last victory party balloon.

Here in St. Helena, a four-term incumbent mayor died shortly after the election, leading to the appointment of his replacement and another appointment to replace that replacement. This appointment process proved so popular with some locals that perhaps in the future we should simply elect one really smart person to office and let that person pick everyone else. With money saved on printing ballots and “I Voted” stickers, we might be able to patch the potholes on Main Street.

But how should we choose local leaders when our political process so often boils down to one issue: managing change to our city? We might adapt the old British system, with two chambers governing the populace. One would be a hereditary House of Land Lords where membership is endowed by birthright, a preference for preservation is as deeply rooted as the family tree, and change is what one leaves in the tip tray. The competing House of Common Folk might consist of unpolished but plucky arrivistes, who applaud progress and lobby for low-cost housing developments for the people, while secretly aspiring to own a vineyard estate on one of the better streets in town.

Maybe we should hold a Hunger Games–like competition. Candidates would not physically kill one another, but exact a social death, exchanging barbs about the fuel efficiency of their respective automobiles and challenging their opponents’ records of supporting charity barrel auctions. Or we could hold a more positive pageant, complete with televised talent competition (let’s skip the swimsuits) and speechifying contestants in evening wear earnestly espousing the elusive goals of either (A) world peace or (B) adoption of the city’s long-delayed General Plan.

My preferred method would be conscription — in other words, to institute the draft. Citizens would be seen rushing from their mailboxes, faces stricken with horror, shrieking to friends and relations: “Oh no, my number has come up!”

Conscripts would be sentenced to serve two years of alternate Tuesday evenings, with many hours of preparatory homework, debating the difference between persons, corporations and wineries under short-term rental statutes, negotiating public-employee union and municipal water-use contracts, while managing more litigation than in-house counsel for a tobacco company.

Worse still, conscripts would be required to demonstrate interest — those caught yawning would be sentenced to one additional year of service; those napping would be transferred to the raucous council of nearby Calistoga.

I’m continually amazed that the Planning Commission, with all its resident legal minds, hasn’t tinkered with the rules requiring members to recuse themselves from voting on matters affecting property within a certain radius of their homes. By simply widening that radius slightly, members could render themselves ineligible to ever decide anything, thereby freeing their Tuesday evenings for poker or liquor, while the city’s planning director roams the streets in futile pursuit of a quorum.

The truth is, it’s a blessing that so many people step up and agree to serve, and amazing that they sometimes compete for the chance to do so. It was interesting, wasn’t it, that two councilmembers recently ran unopposed for election, while many more citizens applied for appointment to that same office? It is either a sign that our late mayor has inspired citizens to public service, or that many enjoy the idea of holding office more than they relish the idea of running for it.

But if we must continue with this election nonsense, then why not adopt the scientific approach of the pheromone partiers? Scratch-and-sniff ballots may be just what we need to ensure that election campaigns are fresh and clean, and that the candidates’ promises can truly pass the smell test.


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